FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Grand Canal of Nicaragua

by

It´s getting close to that time of year again. Sometime soon a vicar of the Anglican Church will write to the Times of London announcing that he or she has heard the call of a cuckoo, deep in the English shires. Such bird song is said to announce the arrival of summer.

The cuckoo´s call is also a signal for journalists that the silly season is upon us; frivolous stories can get the editor´s blessing. Articles that would have been spiked at any other time of year make it into print.

I recalled this as I scanned the world´s news outlets for word on the proposed Grand Canal of Nicaragua. This water way, which doesn’t yet fully exist, holds the possibility of creating a deep sea shipping route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Nicaragua, besides having a Caribbean and a Pacific coast line, has the largest fresh water lake in the whole of Central America. And it doesn´t have the inconvenience of awkward mountain ranges between the lake and the oceans.

For centuries this topography has been the stuff of dreams. For some economists it spells comparative advantage. Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca), in the centre of the country, is a readymade canal gifted by nature to the people of this impoverished country. For others, including a good many ecologists, it is a risk far beyond reason.

Around the turn of the year the media buzz in Nicaragua was taken up by talk of an agreement about this venture between President Daniel Ortega and a Chinese telecom mogul, Wang Jing. Talks have now taken place and studies are already in motion to determine the best route for the canal. Different approaches to and from the lake are under in-house consideration. And the International Longshore and Warehouse Union claims that Russia is looking for ways to become involved. Despite this considerable uncertainty a figure of US$ 40 billion is the confidently quoted cost.

Now imagine my surprise when reading in British newspapers that the Chinese are proposing a 13000km (around 8080miles) high speed rail link. Forget linking two oceans. This jaunt will take in China, stopping at Russia and Canada before pulling into the USA. For those not familiar with the geography that means crossing; well, tunnelling under, the Bearing Sea between Siberia and Alaska.

We are all familiar with casino banking nowadays, so why be alarmed at gaming in the transportation industry?

So far we know there is a stake holder at the table called Grand Canal of Nicaragua. Word has it that another player is on his way, via a very long rail link. But history has already dealt out some of the deck to regular players in this game of chance. Who are they?

Italian born John Cabot sailed from England toward the end of the 15th century, hoping to find the North West Passage, a sea way linking the north Atlantic and north Pacific. He had in mind a route north of Newfoundland and south of Greenland which would eventually lead him to Japan. But that turned out to be his last voyage, he was never seen again.

Then the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sailed between the southern main land of South America and the island of Tierra del Fuego while sub contracted to the King of Spain in 1520. Although the Tehuelche and other indigenous people had likely paddled their canoes through the same passage long before Europeans arrived on the scene.

The 1848 California gold rush saw this southern passage become a busy place for shipping, carrying hopeful prospectors from the east and heading west. Then, Nicaragua made it onto the map of the world´s trading routes. There was no need to hit the wagon trail across the North America continent nor sail the far off southern seas. A relatively short sea voyage down the east coast of North America to Nicaragua´s San Juan River, followed by a stagecoach journey to the country´s Pacific coast, then a sail from Grenada going north to California was sufficient.

While Europe went to war in 1914 the US opened the Panama Canal for international shipping traffic. Before that the French had tried and failed, beaten largely by the forces of nature. A few years before the US had provoked civil disturbances in northern Colombia resulting in that country´s northern region of Panama declaring itself an independent republic. One JP Morgan became the fiscal agent of the new Republic of Panama and arranged the transfer of US$ 40 million for the right to build and a few other concessions.

Predictably, over the hundred years since the canal opened the size of ships has increased dramatically, as ship owners seek to gain economies of scale in the transportation of cargoes. Responding to this, Panama, in conjunction with a European consortium, is in the process of expanding the capacity of the canal by building an additional third set of locks to the original two sets. This and other engineering works will increase the size and number of ships using the canal.

While this is all good 21th century stuff the 15th century notion of using the North West passage is making a comeback. That´s entirely due to climate change. As the Arctic polar ice cap recedes the likelihood of year round commercial inter oceanic shipping advances and the North West Passage opens for business. Last year CBC News reported that 19 vessels had registered with the Canadian Coast Guard to make the transit. That´s a small number but the route must look favorable to the industrialized traders of northeast Europe and the emerging economies of northern Asia.

So the real players in this game of chance, besides the Grand Canal of Nicaragua, are; Expanded Panama Canal, the resurrected novice North West Passage, and the maverick China Russia Canada America Line. As you might expect in this latter day Malamute Saloon there are a number of onlookers. Depending on how the deck is dealt lies their future and fortune.

On the southwestern side of Nicaragua, cited as the canal´s contact point with the Pacific there is considerable wealth. Some of it is long standing, some of it is new money, some of it is domestic, much of it comes from outside Nicaragua. Whatever the impact of the canal, its envisaged air, rail and road terminals with associated services, those with the money will not be in want. They can stay or move. However, the opportunity of employment with useful skills for poor local people cannot be discounted.

The Caribbean side of Nicaragua does not have the same intensity of wealth and level of development as the Pacific. Nevertheless, the Caribbean culture enriches the country´s diversity, yet far from being economically that well integrated at a national level. The impact of an improved infrastructure with support services, similar to the Pacific side, is heralded as a significant and positive socio-economic driver.

But between these coast lines and to the east of the Cocibolca, lies a virgin, forest wilderness. Does that sound too bland? The international journal Nature (19April 2014) describes it differently.

“. . . the ancestral lands of many autonomous indigenous communities and some of the most fragile, pristine and scientifically important ecosystems in Central America.”

What the scientists have done in this article is to introduce the concept of value into what might otherwise be described as a crap game. So let´s rummage about for some tools – analytical frame works if you prefer -among   Karl Marx´s kit. His ideas of “use value” and “exchange value” will do for starters.

The southern Caribbean coast is not without urbanistion. The city of Bluefields has two universities. Nevertheless, in this so called wilderness live people, in disperse and family based rural communities, who lead lives in which use value is a major element. They cut trees to build homes. They gain protein from fish in the river systems that feed the lake and the few animals they husband. The land they till provides their families with grains and vegetables. These are commodities they use. Their neighbours have much the same so there is little value in exchange.

Of course the zone is not totally without trade. When they can, people do buy and sell products at market. Such goods as plastic sheeting and corrugated iron for house building, basics like salt and sugar, not to mention medicines and school books are on offer, sold and bought.

But theirs if a life where exchange value accounts for fewer commodities than are accumulated as use value. What the canal has is the potential, indeed the certainty, of bringing exchange value increasingly into the daily lives of poor people. The details of that impact are less clear.

Change in any society or community is inevitable. But the Grand Canal of Nicaragua is a huge stake holder. What chance does the North-South America migratory routes of the Mesoamerica Biological Corridor, not to mention the ancestral lands of the Rama, Garifuna, Ulwa or Miskitu people have when faced with a US$40bn stake?

Here in Nicaragua people use the expression “bajo la mesa” (under the table), meaning one off the bottom of the deck or some such underhand act. No independent, cultural, social or environmental impact assessment – only the in-house evaluation – is in the offing. So should we be alarmed about something bajo la mesa?

It´s not merely a question of exchange value bringing in new commodities, however beneficial, detrimental or trivial. Exchanges can and are made under the table in Nicaragua, not much different from many other places really. After all, we are dealing with the joined-at-the-hip political classes and global commercial interests, riding high on a cocktail of collaboration and unseen financial transactions. The much vaunted “invisible hand” is part of this body.

The voice of the poor goes largely unheard. But it is there and the shoots of discontent are calling out in the wilderness. The question is, will it attract sufficient domestic and international attention to let us see all the cards on and below the table?

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

Weekend Edition
May 06, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Charles R. Larson
Being Gay in China, Circa 1987
David Yearsley
Skepticism, Irony, and Doubt: Williams on Bach
May 05, 2016
David L. Glotzer
Welcome to Fortified Europe: the Militarization of Europe’s Borders
Adam Szetela
Beyoncé’s “Formation” and the Boutique Activism of the Left
Bruce Lerro
Lost at Sea: Left Liberals Have No Party
Paul Cochrane
Hot Air in the Saudi Desert: a Kingdom in Descent?
Brian Terrell
My Visit to a Las Vegas Jail
Judith Deutsch
The Military’s “Securitization” of Climate Change
Phyllis Bennis
Kunduz Bombing: Proof the Pentagon Should Not Be Allowed to Investigate Itself for War Crimes
Chad Nelson
When Compassion is Terrorism: Animal Rights in a Post-911 World
Dan Arel
Making Sanders’ Dream a Reality Through Political Activism
Kent Paterson
Ten Years Later: Reflections on the Legacies of Immigrant Spring
Serge Halimi
Why Firefighters are Against Free Trade
Andrew Stewart
Green Bernie or Green Party Machine?
Binoy Kampmark
Yuri Gagarin in Space: the Politics of Cosmic Discovery
Hayes Rowan
This Naming of Things
May 04, 2016
Kshama Sawant
It’s Not About Bernie: Why We Can’t Let Our Revolution Die in Philadelphia
Conn Hallinan
Baiting the Bear: Russia and NATO
Joshua Frank
Hanford’s Leaky Nuke Tanks and Sick Workers, A Never-Ending Saga
Paul Craig Roberts
TIPP: Advancing American Imperialism
Ted Rall
Hillary to Bernie Supporters: Don’t Vote for Me!
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America
Leslie Scott
The Story of Jill Stein: Putting People, Peace and the Planet Before Profits
Ann Garrison
Building the Greens Into a Mass Party: Interview with Bruce Dixon
Tom Clifford
Crying Rape: Trump’s China-Bashing
Lawrence Davidson
Getting Rid of Bad Examples: Andrew Jackson & Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Brown
Bank of North Dakota Soars Despite Oil Bust: A Blueprint for California?
Nelson Valdes
Is Fidel Castro Outside or Part of Mainstream Thinking? A Selection of Quotes
Jesse Jackson
Don’t Send Flint Down the Drain: Fix It!
Nathan Riley
Help Bernie Keep His Halo
Rivera Sun
Remembering Nonviolent History: Freedom Rides
Clancy Sigal
Rachel and the Isolationists: How Maddow Blew It
Laura Finley
Changing the Conversation About “The Woman Card”
CJ Hopkins
Coming this Summer … Revenge of the Bride of Sophie’s Choice
May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail